Wednesday, 27 July 2011
Sunday, 10 July 2011
I took the opportunity to ask if he'd like to help with our charity, Ovarian Cancer Action. I was a bit worried about doing that as she'd so recently died, but I have had a letter from him thanking me for my "inspiring words," and adding,best of all,
"All shall be well..."
Thursday, 7 July 2011
Sunday, 19 June 2011
As he cocked his famous leg over the bar, I mentioned to him that I had sent him a letter quite a long time ago, when he was in line for the Oscar, asking if he would like to contribute to our church roof fund, as all the lead has been nicked.
This missive also mentioned the church organ which is currently dying, but I didn't bring that up as well. As he was half on his bike it was best to keep it simple.
He said he hadn't seen it but he never responds to letters put through his letter-box, as he doesn't want anything coming to the house, and "tries to discourage it."
Not sure he understands the postal system and how does anyone know that he discourages it? His silence doesn't exactly betoken disapproval of letter boxes.
He has someone to deal with all his mail, and he says he will at some point get round to looking at my letter and will respond. I look forward to that!
Saturday, 18 June 2011
I set off this morning to buy a small tube of hand cream, something light to put in my luggage on my next voyage out. I also need some tinted moisturiser, as that saves putting on foundation, at least in theory. It’s the lazy woman’s maquillage.
I tried a small chemist on the Chiswick High road, one of those that stay open even though there rarely seems to be any customers. The cream was all expensive. I asked about the moisturiser and a tiny, very smiley Asian girl directed me, vaguely, towards some stuff new in, “organic” cream at £12 for a small tube.
I asked if they had any other more regular brands and she went moving about the shop listlessly before disappearing altogether. I found some tinted cream, but an expensive French variety, and decided to give up. On my way out I saw her again, looking out of the window, and told her where she could find the tinted moisturiser in case anyone asked for it again.
Traipsed on to Superdrug. As soon as I got there I asked the young Indian assistant if they had any such face cream. “We have no cream tinting,” she said emphatically, looking quite pleasantly apologetic. I looked in a different aisle and found Nivea, Daily Essentials, tinted moisturising day cream, a neat little row of the stuff.
What is going on? I had a similar situation a few months ago in the apparently up-market, “As Nature Intended,” organic food shop on the Chiswick High Road.
I asked a large Asian girl on the till, swathed in black robes, if they had any cherry juice. She’d never heard of it and seemed annoyed that I could ask for something so unlikely. Now deeply cynical about girls on tills, I found another assistant at the far end of the shop and asked again. She had heard of it but said they didn’t have any. And as I turned to go, there it was, but a cherry stones throw away, bottles of it, and perhaps the most expensive item they had on sale.
Is this some kind of girlie conspiracy to undermine the shop’s owner or manager, or perhaps the already failing British economy. Do they not want to serve foreigners, (i.e. English people) or any customers who have the temerity to bother them, or are they simply not expected to know anything?
Perhaps they got the job through family connections, or are just waiting to get married. Jobs in shops are not great, but work of any kind, for most of us, is hard to come by.
If I ever had a boring job to do, in the days when I could get a job, I always found that really throwing myself into it was the key to sticking it out. I once had a job on a till in Boots where this plan didn’t work and I nearly went mad with boredom and disgust at some of the customers. Girls in dress shops are generally happier because they are genuinely interested in clothes and keenly eye up all the stock.
But the business of how these idle girls get their jobs and keep them does puzzle me, and I know if I tried to get one myself, I’d have no luck at all.
Friday, 17 June 2011
I had a letter saying that my Neasden excursion on May 17th had been in vain. They have decided not to give me any money; my small disability allowance has stopped. No more Montmorency cherry juice and monk fish for me.
This might easily be followed by a letter from the same people awarding me a certain amount, as that happened a lot months back when the whole rigmarole began. I have never seen evidence of any money from them on my bank statements. I don’t think I ever received any. It was a kind of virtual money that drifted in cyber space somewhere between us.
The next bit of bad luck was visiting my local vet, C.J. Hall in Acton. This was just to have old Maisie’s teeth cleaned. They asked if I wanted her to have a blood test, at a mere £60. I said no, as she looks quite healthy to me.
In the afternoon they rang to say there seemed to be some sign of thyroid trouble as she had “lost a lot of weight.” I naturally agreed to the blood test. Later I got another call to say there was no thyroid problem. She had lost weight over two years – and she is an old cat. I got a bill for £300 – and not even an extraction.
I cannot afford vets anymore. I lump them in with estate agents, loan sharks and nurses as people with a smart appearance and criminal tendencies.
Rang up the Blue Cross, I am just outside their income range, and tried the RSPCA who were not open. The Mayhew Clinic where Rolf Harris made his programmes are supposed to be more reasonable and it would be cheaper to take a cab there and back to see them than pay my local vets who obviously have an obsessional need to buy themselves yachts.
Off to the dentists in South Ealing, the nearest NHS dentist who seems competent. I had a really bad experience with one just up the road in Acton Vale. Complete check up clean and polish for just £17.00. That is a bargain these days, if only he would see cats, but for how long? He tells me the government are advising dentists to only see clients once a year. He’s worried that NHS dentists are being slowly marginalised and has considered branching out into botox.
For most of us the twice yearly appointment has been the rule of a life-time starting at about the age of three. Seeing this sacred ritual discarded, I know this country has really changed.
Back to Queen Charlotte’s to see Mr McKindo, who operated on me in May 2010, to see about a repair to a hernia made at that time.
He seems so nice and charming, just like Prof Gabra last time I met him. On the day of the diagnosis they both seemed cold and forbidding, if not exhausted and tetchy.
Mr Mckindo seemed keen to do the op, and it’s surprising that he has so many dates free to do it. If I was in agony, needed a hip replacement, or my carpal tunnel fixed no doubt there would be a long delay – that’s NHS logic.
After we’d made the appointment he looked in my notes. Seeing him lift the file gave me a queasy feeling. I didn’t want him to, as if I’d got a bad school report or a criminal record. I was suddenly afraid that he would see all that ominous stuff, and say something that would throw me off balance. Later I wondered if he had given me a prompt appointment because he felt sorry for me. Going back to hospital is difficult. It seems I will have to stay in the dreaded Victor Bonney Ward where I had such a bad time. I made a formal complaint about the nursing on that ward, which was dismissed. It will be interesting to go there again – I will be more on my metal this time and taking notes.
I have insomnia again probably because I am about to go travelling, so I have been listening to the Mausoleum Club on Radio 4 Extra. This is pronounced, “Mouse-o-leum,” but none of the presenters seem to grasp this, not even Arthur Smith, who was in one episode himself.
They are parodies of Victorian tales, written by Ian Brown and James Hendrie with a wonderful cast. The last one was a sharp send-up of Sherlock Holmes. I can’t wait for The Twist of the Knob and Trevor Island.
Marriage has many pains but celibacy has Radio 4.
There is a vixen living in the garden next to mine, with two cubs. I haven’t seen them but if I go out there at dusk I hear a scrabbling and banging as one of them goes over the fence, and my cat Maisie won’t go out at all.
They visit my garden at night and leave evidence of their antics in the form of horrible rubbish; plastic bags, food wrappers, bits of foil and soggy kitchen paper. I once found a bag of old make-up remover pads and dead false eye-lashes. This is strewn all over the lawn and borders. They have also dug a hole under my fence into next door’s garden. It gives an odd feeling of chaos to look at my lawn now, as if my garden has suddenly become part of the pavement at the front.
I was doing a bit of gardening before lunch, picked up some stray sticks and took them to the compost heap – this is not really what you might call authentic compost, of the sort seen on TV contained in neat wooden structures, more a load of old branches and twigs I can’t be bothered to cut up, which get stacked up on a wall behind the shed, along with grass cuttings and weeds. The thing has got very large and unwieldy in the past, and once contained a wild bees’ nest.
I reached out with the detritus and found that the compost heap had gone. Vanished. Just not there. I stared at a flatish pile of old leaves.
Some grass cutting had been shoved down onto the path along with a wet plastic bag, but my pile of organic matter was missing. The foxes have taken it all for their nest, and just left me with the spare shreds of unpleasant plastic they don’t want.
They are nothing if not green.
Since I came back from Poland Maisie has been behaving slightly oddly, by sleeping on my clothes. She always used to roost in the folded back duvet, sinking into it until she almost disappeared. Now she has been curled up on my pillow on my nightdress, and today she was on the mattress sheet on top of my t-shirt. She looks as if she’s clutching the things to her. I won’t mention that I’m going away again soon, to New York on the Queen Mary.
Sunday, 5 June 2011
She and her neighbours woke up one day to find they were living alongside the S69 and D3 sections of the Trans European Transport Corridor No VI.
From early in the morning you hear the noise of construction and men in orange vests swearing and shouting. Look out of the window across what used to be gardens and acres of allotments with fruit trees and you now see a rigid barrier of concrete on squat giant legs.
This new “pan European transport corridor,” now hurtles below her garden balcony. It’s so close that you could reach out from the balcony and almost touch the concrete.
It’s being built closer to domestic dwellings than any new road would be in the UK. EU law, at least in Poland allows a distance of 40 metres but here the distance is 37 at most.
She says she wants to invite reporters from the BBC to come and sit there with her and have tea, and watch how their cups and saucers rattle to the sound of high powered drills.
“My house is like a watchtower overlooking the road,” she says. “Perhaps when the cars come I could stand on my balcony with a billboard, advertising something and get paid for it.”
That’s about the only joke we’ve found in the situation so far. The cars haven’t arrived yet but it’s already ferociously noisy and fills the air with dust. There is some vague plan to put up giant screens as noise barriers to shield the houses, and schools which are just an alarming eighteen metres away.
These will have to be painted somehow stop a massacre of birds, so the future will certainly be different in Bielsko-Biała; one of triple glazing, staying in doors instead of sitting in the garden or looking at the view, and smog masks.
In the 1970s there were about 500,000 cars on the road in Poland, now there are about 20 million. The roads are in bad shape. In Bielsko very little is down to repair the small local roads, which break up badly in the winter frosts.
The government’s response to this, using EU money, is to build motorways, and to run down the Polish railways,(PKP) which were privatised quickly just before Poland entered the EU.
Early this year the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk announced that 4.8 billion PLN (1 billion GBP) which had been allocated for expenditure on Polish rail was being diverted to the road budget.
Like good old British Rail, has not been improved one jot by being sold off, at least not as far as the “customers,” are concerned. Poles now experience the kind of Christmas chaos which we enjoy so much in the west. Ticket prices have soared and passenger numbers fallen. Trains lines that I used regularly in the 1970s, for instance from Katowice to Oswiecim, to my surprise no longer exist.
The Polish government is now subsidising cars not trains. Currently, due to an EU directive, three major motorways spanning the entire country are being built. Many sections are under construction, due to be finished by mid-2012.
What is so alarming about all this is the lack of any consultation with the public.
A couple of years ago I wrote a letter of protest about Ewa’s plight, to the European department dealing with Polish roads. They sent back a thick document written in dense jargon, saying that full consultation had taken place. A terrible lie as neither Ewa nor her neighbours had any say in the matter. Local people suggested running the new high-way along a route proposed years ago, skirting the town, or putting some of it into a tunnel, but those ideas were dismissed without comment.
I tried to fathom out Polish local democracy a bit – who is there MP or equivalent? No one is sure. There is a list of men, chosen by different parties by proportional representation, in a multi-party system, with sixteen regional governments, who send a representative to the Sejm in Warsaw.
This is confusing to say the least and not one of the men appointed locally was interested in the residents concerns. When Ewa went to the local town hall and met a councillor he said, “Well what can I do? I am only one man.”
Available land was quickly sold by the county council and even the church, so the road quickly seemed to locals like a fait accomplis.
The key man apparently who wanted it is the mayor, Jacek Krywult, 70, a career politician who even had a good career under the communists, and has continuously been re- elected “President” of Bielsko since 2002.
Despite being “vice-president for traffic safety,” he is not worried by having two schools bang up against a major motorway, or 37 metres from the local church steps.
Where is Swampy when you really need him? Apparently there are no knotty headed tree protestors or groups of determined middle-class road protestors in Poland. According to Ewa protestors are taken away, put in hospital and given drugs.
“Like in Soviet times,” a phrase which is sometimes a dark joke between us.
One of her neighbours, called by Ewa, “the bravest,” who refused to move out when ordered, had her 19th century house knocked down anyway. She was offered help to pack if she got out on the appointed date, but she stayed defiantly inside until police arrived and turfed her out. There is still a great fear of the police in Poland, “just like in…”
The woman received compensation and built a new, smaller house nearby. No one can sell their once fine houses so there is no chance of moving away to a quiet, less polluted place.
It was disappointing to me to think than no local press reported her situation and there were certainly no TV cameras recording any discontent. When this sort of thing happens in Beijing and people are forced by their government to quit their homes, you do see reports of it in the world’s press. When it happens in Poland, the new EU, no one seems to bother.
A beautiful country town is now scarred, raddled by road builders as blind to the environment as our planners were in the 1960s.
The people I spoke of spoke of a new “Red Bourgeoisie,” former communists now living on the fat of EU money, happy with advanced capitalism.
This sometimes has its darkly comic side – in the mountain town of Zywiec an old factory with a tall chimney, has been turned into a TESCO, which has its logo vertically on the chimney stack. It looks ominously like a crematorium.
In Auschwitz itself, always a boldly unembarrassed little town, all the supermarkets apart from Carrefore are German; Lidl, Kaufland and Biedronka. There was an objection when Kaufland wanted to put up signed advertising itself with the initials: KL, once famous for Konzentrationslager.
After the wedding we had a couple of days sight seeing, visiting churches old and brand new. There was obviously a building boom going on. Detached houses are springing up everywhere, among them a few old grey concrete boxes, patterned with asbestos tiles, and flat roofs from communist times when pitched roofs were forbidden as they used too much material.
Ewa knew someone who made enough money cleaning in Dublin to return home and build a house. The Polish Zloty is low in value, so it’s possible to get rich abroad. A kind of Polish fiscal miracle.
“It is a mystery everyone talks about,” said Ewa. “There are no jobs in Poland, yet everyone is building country houses.”
It was interesting to see Bielsko town again. It was dreary and run down under the comms but now looks like a clean Alpine holiday resort, with good bars and night-clubs.
We visited Łodygowice village with its baroque wooden church, and up to Zywiec to visit the old brewery where they still produce 1,464 bottles of the amber nectar every four minutes, that is 2,108,160 bottles a day.
They now have an interactive museum, taking visitors on a time travel from the time of the Hapsburgs to the Soviets. This included a flickering black and white film made in the 1920, free Poland between the wars, with well dressed people gathering at race-tracks, travelling in sports cars and gliders, the Poland that never was.
Not being a beer drinker, the best part of Zywiec for me was sitting on the grass, eating a fresh yeast roll, in the old Habsburg park, in front of its Palace. In an act of extraordinary and unlikely kindness the Polish government have allowed Duchess Marie-Christine von Habsburg, 87, to return and live in a two room flat in her former home.
There is a short film about her life in the Zywiec museum. She is a grand old girl. Perhaps she has been allowed back because her father was tortured by the Gestapo and her mother, an Austrian, joined the Armia Krajowa, AK, the valiant Polish underground army.
We took a cable car up Zar, or “hot” mountain, and sat in the sun looking down on Tresna Dam, and Bielsko’s lush enfolding scenery. I hadn’t realised until then that Ewa now lives in a major tourist spot.
“Over there, behind that hill is Oswiecim,” (Auschwitz) said Kazik.
“I can see that you’d like to visit it,” she said.
At one time every blade of grass, every stone in there was fascinating to me, but we had decided not to go there this time. I’d come to a wedding and it wasn’t appropriate, besides she finds the tragedy of it has got worse in her mind over the years, not better.
Her grandfather moved the family from northern Poland down to Oswiecim after the first world war. He looked at the map and decided that it looked like a quiet, rural place where nothing much would ever happen. Her father was taken to the death camp to work as a slave, aged sixteen. As soon as he arrived his teeth were punched out. I know other Poles whose relations had the same treatment. It was obviously company policy. Gruesome to think of people walking about with smashed up jaws and no medical help.
There were a lot worse things going on in there of course. That was the luxury end of the itinerary. I was fascinated by it on one level, as a factory of death; such a completely in-human, un-human idea.
Before it became properly known, some Jews called it “Pitchipoi,” a distant destination. The artist Charlotte Salomon said the name, “resounded like an eternal curse.” The German painter, Felix Nussbaum painted it quite accurately, on the basis of this hearsay.
When I first went there in 1978 it seemed oddly still, like an extinct volcano. You pick over the old lava, climb up small hills of moraine, walk carefully over the cracks in the ground, not sure that it isn’t all going to ignite again at any moment. It still has a devouring presence.
Part of this feeling of torpor came from the poor quality of the museum in those day, ruled over by communists who used it for partly for propaganda purposes. On my first visit, the Jewish bunker was shut. I saw a youth who’d come all the way from LA sitting on the ground outside the locked door, really distressed. In those days there was no one to appeal to. If something was shut that was it.
After the comms went, the same people were left in charge. They opened a “Jewish reading room,” but I never saw a Jew in there. I was given a signed first edition of his book, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman. I gave it to the archive and they were very pleased to have it, but I did wonder why they didn’t just go to Warsaw and ask him for a copy themselves. They didn’t go in for collecting oral history, what was there when the Russians arrived was it.
Apparently the museum has got better now, even providing visitors with i-pod commentaries. I wonder if they all leave them in a heap when they go home.
It’s very difficult to know how exactly to view the place. I was at Machu Picchu in Peru recently. Like Auschwitz it is also a “World Heritage Site,” a place where you can pay respect to a race and their culture which was systematically exterminated. It doesn’t have that kind of impact of course, a lot of tourists find the place rather cute. That is due simply because of the passing of time.
Wondering whether to go there again was like talking about an old acquaintance, someone we didn’t know anymore.
Kazik suggested going past it briefly on our way back to the airport on my way home.
We stopped for a moment outside KL One, before driving along the wall of the old Austrian barracks. It could be any old wall, yet the other side of it forms the end of a court-yard and is painted black. Hundreds of Poles stood there naked, facing it, waiting to be shot.
Up the road, reaching Birkenau, you immediately see the broad, black camp watch-towers which look as fragile as charcoal when you get close. We parked in front of the famous entrance, like the open mouth of hell in a mediaeval painting, with the strips of metal rail feeding in.
Ewa’s younger son remained very quietly in the car, perhaps wondering what people were doing, having photos taken but not smiling into the camera, staring through barbed wire at expanses of rolling nothingness, bending their eyes on vacancy, putting their hands down flat on railway lines as if they were to tops of sacred tombs.
On the plane back from Krakow I was surprised to find that most of the passengers were young Jews. When I was last in Poland ten years ago I didn’t see any. Visitor numbers started increasing after the release of the film Schindler’s List.
spoke to a couple of the young women. They seemed angry and agitated by what they’d seen.
“It will definitely be my last visit,” said one, sounding disgusted with the world. I wondered where all that rage will be directed, perhaps towards support for the state of Israel, which means that Hitler’s work of destruction will go on.
Monday, 30 May 2011
“I was wearing them at one of your parties in the 1970s,” she said.
“You said, “Oh, you are too elegant.””
Oh dear – what an insecure twit I was. I remember those student parties in my flat near Katowice in Silesia. I was a so called teaching assistant at the University of Sosnowiec, although I had no one to assist. I was on my own fronting large classes mainly of bored looking teenage girls with inexplicable names like Małgorzata and Bożena. A rattled Fulbright scholar from the US called them, “The whispering maidens of Katowice.”
Ewa was one of my students who didn’t whisper or pass bits of paper to her neighbour. She worked determinedly and was definitely the most elegant, possibly the best looking of them all. A real Polish princess.
We first met when she put up her hand in class and asked me if I would like to go home with her for the weekend to visit her family in Oswiecim, better known to the world as Auschwitz.
“The town is very interesting,” she said. “We have a wonderful ice-rink.”
We’ve been friends since then, down all the years, and I was invited to Bielsko-Biała for her son Adam’s wedding on May 21st.
I remember when he was born, just after Martial Law had been declared. There was a food shortage and everyone was in a panic about finding milk for him.
A Polish wedding is possibly more significant than its English equivalent, especially if the family is strongly Catholic.
This time, unlike the 1970s I complimented her on her outfit. She didn’t comment on my black and white M & S dress and bright red fascinator, she was too stressed to notice. Her husband Kazik sat quietly sewing a button onto Adam’s suit.
We set off in two cars, along the pot-holed roads to visit the new in-laws, for a special Polish parental blessing on the young couple, which sounded rather strange to me.
The small house might have been English, part of a pleasant looking estate, but there was a large black crucifix at the bottom of the stairs, and a table set out like an altar in the living room, with a silver crucifix and beside it a bowl of water and a small brush called an aspergillum, used for sprinkling in the Catholic church. On the floor was a white towel.
The mother looked rather perplexed at seeing me, as if this intrusion might be the last straw on a very stressful day. She shooed me away from the towel as I struggled to take photos with a strange camera.
The bride came down stairs and no one made a big fuss at seeing her in her wedding dress, except me! In Polish tradition this is the moment when the groom first sees the bride. They both had to kneel on the white square. The four parents made spontaneous comments on their union before kissing them, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads and sprinkling them with holy water which had been blessed by a priest at Easter.
Seeing Kazik cup his son’s face in his hands and kiss him briefly was very moving. I wondered if I would get through this without shedding tears. Around me everyone else seemed light hearted.
The nuptial mass took place in the church of St. Barbara in Mikuszowice, a smart looking country village. The tiny church, was built in 1690 from nailess planks of black larch wood, sweeping down to the ground in a broad stiff skirt. Above it has an onionish dome and a slender tower. http://www.panoramy-wirtualne.pl/panorama/kosciol-sw-barbary-w-mikuszowicach-bielsko-biala-spacer-wirtualny/33/5
I first saw these churches when I went to work in Poland in 1978 and found them disturbing, too like illustrations from fairy-tales. I associated them with village culture and persecution of the Jews.
Milling about outside in the sunshine, among the guests there were a lot of chic clothes on view, but I quickly realised that I was the only woman in a fascinator, or hat of any kind.
“For Polish women the most important thing is going to the hairdresser on the day,” I was told.
Inside St. Barbara’s is a Baroque jewel, with ornately painted walls, showing scenes from her martyrdom. There were also carvings of her, and St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, and over the altar a giant poster of the Blessed John Paul II’s beaming face.
When the comms were in power, the grim image of Maximillian Kolbe the martyr priest who died in Auschwitz was everywhere. He now seems to have been replaced somewhat by the sunnier, more triumphant figure of the late Pope.
The bride and groom go up the isle together, no one is “given away.” That custom is purely Anglo-Saxon apparently, but catching on in Poland, thanks to American rom-coms on Polish TV and the recent royal wedding.
There were no wedding service sheets, but I could follow the Mass easily as its rhythm is the same as the service we have at St. Michael’s in Chiswick. I didn’t lose my place at all.
At the “Pokoju” or Peace, I felt moved, and at the end when the choir, including Adam’s new father in law, struck up with an English anthem: “Great is the Lord. In his power we trust, ” sung in a rather “Swingly” manner with lots of “pah, pah, pahs,”
Afterwards the guests lined up to give the bride and groom presents of money and fresh flowers all beautifully wrapped. Ewa told me that flowers as gifts are getting rarer, and there is a new custom of asking guests for lottery tickets in the hope of a big win. Others ask for tiny keep sakes, “Pamiątka,” which can also be risky as you may end up with a room full of pottery elephants.
I lined up with my envelope containing £20 and told the bride she looked, “as good as Pippa Middleton,” forgetting that I’d been warned that “pipa,” pronounced, “Pippa” is a very rude word in Polish. Hearing it cause much hilarity in Polish homes during the royal nuptials.
“You must say Philippa at all times,” warned Ewa.
The bride laughed and I got the impression they thought I was a bit eccentric anyway, with this red feathery thing on my head.
We made our way in convoy into higher mountains, to the small hotel, the Stara Szmergielnia, the equivalent of “the old whet-stone.” A beautiful place with a wide court-yard leading down to stables and the Białka river.
We were going to be there until the next day. The party might last that long. “However late it ends,” Ewa told me, “the parents must stay till the very end.”
A strange convention indeed. No sloping off to bed like the Queen. I was glad I had a room to retreat to even though it was ominously number 101.
A fat chef appeared with a very large loaf, with a heart shape cut out and filled with salt. He gave the bride and groom a glass of water and one of vodka. They had to pick a glass each and the one who got the vodka would be “the ruler,” of their house.
Food began appearing as soon as we sat down.
It came stacked up on the plates, Kotlets, traditional beef roulade, and a modern version with chicken and fruit, piled up like pleated material. Very tasty but I couldn’t recognise much of it, and to Ewa’s annoyance there were no menus.
Then endless salads; raw celeriac with walnuts and orange, herring in cream and with apple, cooked vegetables and traditional chicken broth.
There was supposed to be a Greek salad but to Ewa’s disgust no one could find it, but it was difficult to spot as the tables became crammed with food and the lights dimmed as the disco started.
The bride and groom kicked off the dancing with an ambitious tango. I suspected that the tentacles of Strictly Come Dancing reached even into deepest Poland. Then the DJ launched the evening with the hits of Boney M.
I sat there in my fascinator, clearly not fascinating anyone much, but the man next to me and his wife spoke some English and he seemed very charming and amused by me as we excavated the food and drink.
He wanted “Kluski śląskie,” glutinous boiled dumplings. They were there among all the plates but he asked the waitress for an extra portion. I wondered if he might like to have them in a kind of croque en bouche, piled up with gravy poured down over them, but I couldn’t put that into Polish.
At first there was a toast, then one glass of wine and some orange squash available, later Ewa managed to procure some real fruit juice, and a small but ominous bottle of vodka. People had to decided early between wine and vodka, mixing the two would be lethal, but the wine was kept back for awhile. Despite this, the dance floor was full of sexy couples and then I was dragged up and flung about and clutched closely by a sweating, barrel chested man, which was quite enjoyable.
We sat down for awhile for some gypsy music and singing by a local “mountain man,” and I realised that my fascinator had been noticed. A fat young man who looked like a football hooligan asked to be photographed with me wearing it, then he put it on himself, then on his wife.
After a few old records the music seemed to be mainly covers of old songs. I asked for some ABBA and the DJ reluctantly agreed. For a few moments I was again the Dancing Queen, only seventeen, prancing about alone in the strobe lights. I don’t get to do that very often these days.
At 10 pm more food arrived, this time large fried pierogi, or ravioli, with cheese and meat. I was visited by a young girl from Alabama. She said she’d deliberately changed her accent at college as other Americans thought it was “too cute,” the frequent reaction we English get.
She was living with a Polish boy in Krakow, studying East European culture and Polish language. Apparently her mother is very understanding, but her father finds it inexplicable that she should swap the US for Poland.
Over the din of Polish pop music which neither of us knew, she laid out the whole basic structure of the language to me, a bit like doing a diagram of the National Grid or inland waterways. She was really clarifying it to herself, but it was useful for me to hear.
“Honestly, you know I speak it like a seven year old,” she said. “All the nouns and pronouns decline and the verbs conjugate in three tenses so I often get lost.”
But unlike me she had cracked the code. I told her that in a few months it would be gushing out of her and she’d be surprised to hear herself.
I wished that I’d worked at it when I was living there, but then all the students wanted to speak English to me, while teachers from the Jagiellonian university said they didn’t want to hear foreigners speaking poor Polish. I couldn’t have focused enough anyway.
Strangely she said she couldn’t follow the wedding service at all. After ten minutes she shut off because of all the “formal, old fashioned Polish.” Well, she was by tradition a southern Baptist, so perhaps she would have found the Eucharist hard to follow even in English.
As the hours ticked by in what was part party and part endurance test, people came up to chat and intimacy developed quickly.
Ewa told me she had seen a piece by Dame Diana Rigg on line, about me. In 2003 she sued me for libel, got about £40,000 I think, in an out of court settlement and my career at the paper went into a nose-dive. It was her word against mine and I didn’t have a tape-recorder, just my trusty note-pad.
“That woman wrecked your career,” said Ewa bitterly, “and your health.”
Ewa really does not like what she sees as bad people at all and seethes if they are seen to prosper, a hangover from the old communist days when flagrant injustice was the norm. For a moment I imagined a Polish posse descending on the liver-spotted old cow. But it’s old history now and despite being a tabloid journalist, I still have my integrity. Some months after it all happened I heard La Rigg on Front Row on Radio 4 contentedly describing herself as, “A monster.”
The DJ generously offered us a rendering of, “Viva Espagna!” and the floor filled up again. I was pulled up to dance by a man ho constantly twizzled me about and kept pirouetting me in and out under his arm as if we were jiving. He wouldn’t let me alone and wanted me to join in congas and groups of arm wavers in the centre of the room. I got away from him and had a moment of pure joy under the strobes, dancing to, “Staying Alive.” That never had more resonance for me. I didn’t bother with it at all when it came out.
“Should I stay or should I go?” by the Clash brought back memories of working in Wormwood Scrubs. We had a visit from what remains of that group and some of the men loved that song. Particularly a Dutchman I was fond of.
Then we had Polish disco music and for a moment the floor seemed to be taken by Polish Elvis impersonators.
I returned to my table which was gradually stacking up with food, feeling a bit maudlin about all that had happened since I was last in Poland ten years ago. Thinking about all the new people I’d met over the last year, some of them at Maggie’s Cancer Support Centre, so many of them slowly dying, to be swept away soon like leaves. That connected with thoughts about Poland and the last war, the great horror, which is never far from mind; so many good people just like these frisking about so sexily, all those pointless deaths. I had a sense of everyone being intensely valuable which I never used to have.
The couple reappeared to cut the cake, thin slices as the whole bottom tier was mysteriously missing. “It’s like communist times,” I said to Ewa who looked apoplectic.
Other cakes arrived, sturdy wedges of poppy-seed cake, apple cake which I love, and piles of petit four, but some mad fool had flavoured almost everything, apart from the apple, with coconut.
When I first went to Poland as a picky girl, I didn’t like the flavour of coconut, dill and caraway, which the Victorians used for small cakes. My mother was forced to eat them as a child, in an age where children had to take whatever they were offered.
I quickly realised I was going to have to put up with these three flavours as they were in almost everything, with caraway often put into bread. Over the years I have got to like potatoes and fish with dill.
At 1pm the rather surly waitress brought us a kind of very fatty soup, “bogracz” a kind of goulash, which is supposed to be supportive to vodka drinkers. The wine had appeared and more vodka, and people had made their choice of poison hours before.
The bride decided to throw her bouquet at last. A large girl in a very short, tight pink dress was determined to get it, there was a scrum, a real pile up and in the struggle the flowers were shredded. The girl in pink emerged triumphant but got very weak applause after such a desperate fight.
“I’ve never seen such a strong fight between maidens before,” said Ewa, still cross about the blips in the catering.
I could sympathise with the fat girl in pink, as I realised that this was the first wedding I’d ever enjoyed. I have not been invited to many, which was a mercy as I used to behave so badly at them, wanting so much to have one of my own. Now all those bitter, anxious feelings had gone. I was happy for other people being happy, a tottering step in the right direction I suppose.
I stayed up for some very good ice-cream, but at 2am slipped away before the beetroot soup, to room 101. Other people had gone too, but the young and the surprisingly old, and the parents were still hard at it and stayed till 5am.
In the morning I pottered about before anyone else came down. Breakfast was fixed for 11am. Round the side of the hotel I met the fat chef, still in his whites and hat, having a quiet smoke.
He said he’d been working for seventeen hours non stop. His pay was not as good as it would be if he moved to London, and was Gordon Ramsey really as crazy as he seemed on TV?
Ewa told me that one of the mountain women had asked for my fascinator. She had told her it was improper to ask for such a thing. I said she could have it, as long as it didn’t become an object of pagan worship. But then I hesitated. I am going on the Queen Mary to New York soon and rather fancied wearing it to go on board.
The bride and groom went off on their honeymoon, walking in the Beskidy mountains. They were staying in a luxury hotel at the foot of Pilsko mountain. When I saw the bride with her enormous ruck-sack as long as her long, graceful body, I thought they were heading for the summit at 5108ft. I asked what was in it.
“I am a woman. I need so many things,” she said in that winsome womanly way that some Polish women still have.
I was up there myself once in deep snow. We met some Czechs on their side of the invisible border, and toasted each other in vodka, but after initial greetings sat in silence, in a kind of acknowledgement of mutual political oppression and frustration.
Ewa’s home and the other mother in law’s soon filled up with the couple’s wedding flowers. It was sad to see them sitting there in their wonderful arrangements, lining every window ledge and table, a beautiful burden.
In the house in Bielsko, I had my usual bed on the top floor under the eaves.
It’s a tall country house, with a wood interior, which her husband built by hand with his friends. When I first saw it in the early 1990s I thought of it as a kind of tower he had designed to imprison her. She has never let down her tawny hair and attempted escape but things have changed drastically around her.
Today is the feast of St Joan of Arc.
All this worrying about will it happen or won’t is all rubbish of course, if we all have eternity to deal with.
In church yesterday, young Fr Stephen gave us a print out of some words from St. Basil about the Holy Spirit. It ends with a list, which he says we might like to consider over the next nine days before Ascension Day. It gives what they call the “fruits of the spirit,” and he says we should think which ones we already have and which we’d like to acquire:
A bit daunting really. I think I have Kindness, now and then, and honesty, which isn’t mentioned, but little or none of the others!
Friday, 27 May 2011
Before Easter I was chatting to the editor of the quarterly magazine which now very kindly gives me work, and he mentioned interviewing the UK’s ten top historians, Schama, Fergusson, etc. and finding out who they dine with, go shooting with at weekends, advice given to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown etc.
It sounded like a great idea and I wished him well. Then he said that I was doing it.
I set about it immediately, before the shock had set in – real hard work for a change, all those phone numbers to find, most of them abroad as that last generation of grammar school boys provided a round the world history service.
The whole country was about to pack up for Easter followed by the Royal Wedding but I beavered away feeling the way I imagine Kenneth Branagh behaved when he was trying to rustle up a cast for his Hamlet: “Who is it? Oh – Darling we’ve got Jack Lemmon! Oh Derek you sweetheart! Darling, we’ve got Jacobi! And so on collecting them all up; Julie, Katy and that old fellow who used to be in sitcoms as Polonius.
I got most of my history stars before the hiatus of the wedding and the bank hols.
“Your magazine is exactly our target audience here at the Royal Palaces,” said Lucy Worsley winsomely, but they were a tricky bunch. I had to establish a time and call them. One young buck who'd once been on TV spouting about castles was out when I called and when I spoke to him a day later he gave no apology or explanation. Another provided a time to call him at home in
David Cadwardine got back to me after a party. Alcohol can be the interviewer’s best friend, but not in that case. He was so maudlin and self-deprecating, saying he had no influence over anyone, that he really had nothing much to say. Lord Hennessey of the mysterious, erotic sounding Nympsfield, was also unsure that anyone listened to him.
No word from the Scots lothario Niall Ferguson, but then he never used to speak to me even when I was working for his wife.
There was soon only one person left – Simon Schama that cerebral, writhing, fevered exponent of world history, so passionate and mighty that he can even get away with using long words and winding sentences on TV.
Before Easter hit, I left messages with his publisher, or tried to. I got through to the voice mails of girls with names like Suzanna,
After the holiday with my deadline only a day away, I got a date and time fixed to call the great man but he would only do it if I read his views on education on line, and a salient chapter in his new book, Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. The publisher didn’t know which chapter that was.
I rushed off to Waterstone’s and bought the book, only out in hardback, got back and started trying to read as much of it as possible before he called the next day at 3pm our time.
I sat at my desk, reading possibly relevant chapters, not sure what he would ask me, making notes, going through my questions, waiting until the appointed moment, but he was not in.
The next day no reason was given for this silence, perhaps he was doing his laundry or out at a party. The publisher made another date for me. She thawed out a little as if we were both now up against it. I waited at the appointed time, sitting there like a love-lorn fool, but heard my phone ringing off the hook as they say in rom-coms.
On Friday 13th I went off out for the day to collect some of my paintings from my friend Charles in East Finchley, which is a lovely looking place if you live in Acton.
The date lived up to its reputation as when I got home I’d got a parking ticket, having forgotten to display my new and costly parking permit. There was also a message waiting from the publisher with the double-barrel name, saying Schama would talk to me at 4pm.
It was 5.30pm and she left no number for herself or him. I scrambled to find her in my note-book again and she gave me a number for Schama in
“Yes, apologise Jane, apologise, do it!” said my editor, sounding more like an editor than he normally does. He's usually very pleasant.
I had a flash of perception about the publishing world, where if you are in that extremely rare position of making money with your books you cannot be in the wrong, a bit like an old
As I waited again, I wondered how you talk to the most interesting man on earth? At last I heard that silky, careful, almost whispered voice. I’d been to the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery, and I hoped he’d be interested in that. He was.
There was an exquisite little sculpture in the show called the Spinario, of a boy taking a thorn out of his foot. This slightly erotic image was immensely popular in the early modern period, the Pope and later Charles I commissioned them. I'd never seen it before and mentioned it to him. There was a moment of silence – had I by chance found the one thing in the world unknown to the maestro?
After this tiny lull the conversation cracked on well, I even got a possible diary story. I also mentioned the arguments I had heard against history as a subject. The line is that it’s all propaganda written by the victors in battle, and there are no real facts. Also that the facts we once used are redundant as they only apply to an extinct patriarchy. I was surprised when he said he hadn’t heard those views very much.
“That argument has been kept from me,” he said, as if it was of no consequence.
I got an impression about his world too, that it’s a comfortable place where left wing views do not form the main opinion. Lucky he – when I was in university and recently in FE and working in prison I was surrounded by teachers who hated history as a subject and were suspicious of knowledge itself.
The following week I had lunch with some of my former Fleet Street colleagues to try to catch up on the latest round of gossip i.e. sackings and whose got work and who hasn’t.
Of course one of them knows someone who slept with Schama when they were young. Apparently he was really interesting in that department too.
Thursday, 26 May 2011
Got home and lay in bed for awhile thinking how "it" could just happen at any time.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
Tuesday 17th May.
I’ve never been clear about what I’m getting. Way back when this thing began I got a lot of letters from Acton JobCentre Plus, or were they? There was an address in
My doctor took charge of it all and got me to sign a letter with him. Since then I have been receiving a small amount of monthly money. I put it towards the high cost of Matcha Green Tea and the magical Montmorency cherry juice.
Then I got a letter saying I had to be assessed to make sure I am not defrauding the taxpayer by dossing around when I could be out there partaking in one of the millions of exciting jobs available.
This troubled me a bit. I lost my job at the Daily Mail in September 2005, and spent the next five years sitting at my computer filling in forms on line for jobs and getting no reply. I didn’t get enough freelance work to live on either, and eventually I started going for the “small” jobs; shop work, stacking shelves, a local café, book shop, Waterstones, museum guide, the Acton Care-Centre, doctor’s receptionist. I didn’t get a thing.
It became clear that there were no jobs for white middle class, middle aged ladies like me. The woman who interviewed me at the care home was embarrassed. She said she mainly employed Africans who sent money home to their families. She wanted strapping young things who could work a twelve hour shift for shit wages.
At forty eight I was an embarrassing bit of scrap on the heap, apparently un-usable by this society. Forty eight sounds old, I know, but I wasn’t. I was still ready to test my fate, take a chance, but I didn’t get one.
The trauma of that with its wrenching shift of identity and life-style was almost as bad as the diagnosis of cancer – I would rank them almost side by side. Perhaps that is why my mind gets so cloudy when the matter of “Jobseekers” and benefits comes up.
“You should get this money,” said my Doctor. “You have ovarian cancer.” I didn’t want to hear that, but I decided to go through with it.
This assessment seemed even more unlikely because it involved a trip to Neasden of all places, with an order to be there at 9am or there would be a danger of losing benefits. As if this north
I got up at 6am as I had no way of knowing how long the journey to Neasden might take. I got there at 7.30am and followed the map along a dual carriage way, under a dirty bridge to a large flat building called something “house,” as much like a house as an air-craft hangar.
I had decided to put on a summer dress, bought on Saturday from Dorothy Perkins in the Westfield Centre, along with a white cotton bolero. Lord I was freezing. I hadn’t worn a dress for ages and I badly misjudged the Spring weather. Despite costing £40 it’s made of mighty thin cotton, almost like tracing paper, and it kept blowing up around my neck.
Some Somali men on the desk of the office next door to the medical centre let me sit in and wait. The medical centre still hadn’t opened at 8.45am. I stood on the step in the wind, joined by a middle aged woman with a pony-tail, and a walking stick.
“Be careful,” she said, “they are watching us. There is one of them in that four-wheel drive over there. They watch to see if you are really disabled.”
I flexed my hand with carpel-tunnel syndrome a bit to try to look a bit less of a ligger, whilst screwing my fly-away skirt down between my perishing knees.
She said she was by profession “a dog psychologist.” She hadn’t had much luck with her clients.
“I was in the park with my Shepherd,” she went on. “Another dog barged up to us and completely severed my leg.”
I smiled politely as if perfectly convinced. I wondered what kind of dog it could have been, probably not one of the myriad Yorkshire terriers or pugs in smart coats that you see in
“I now wear a brace,” she said. How could you put a brace on a leg that was no longer there?
“My physiotherapist says I won’t be well again for seven years.”
The letter was very keen on us being there by 9am but they only opened the door one minute before the hour.
A young Somali man with a shiny forehead and tiny features unlocked it as I pressed the bell. He looked annoyed and began to question me about why I had done that as he was unlocking. He seemed like an offended policeman who might at any moment turn proper nasty. The dog lady and I hopped into the lift with remarkable alacrity for two such disabled people.
“Well, you are here nice and early,” said the Chinese girl on the second floor desk, as if we were not only disabled but only five years old.
There were just the two of us being interviewed and I was relieved to be called very quickly.
The woman interviewing was a nurse of the old type; English, well educated and pleasant. Unlike the other staff I’d met she was impeccably professional. As far as I could tell she had no attitude towards me at all. She just wrote it all down and some one else made the decision.
She tapped away, and I noticed she had no wrist supports on the desk or key board at all. As I listed my rather vague symptoms, I wondered how long her wrists would keep going like that.
I asked her if she knew how much I was getting, she didn’t but thought it might be about £64 a week. I was very surprised. I’d never noticed that on my bank statement. I’d feel rich if I had that.
On the way out, heading to the loo, I saw the Somali who’d let us in, sitting facing the ladies lavatory door. As I went in he gave me an unpleasant, knowing look as if I’d got scammer written all over me. Perhaps the dog lady was right and we were being scrutinised. He and the girl on the desk regarded us as if they had private knowledge about us and it wasn’t anything to be proud of.
I wondered whether to ask them how they got their jobs – and if they could possibly get one for me ?
Thursday, 5 May 2011
I suppose I am having a kind of honeymoon with myself – all this lovely weather, and the lovely name NED playing in my head - “no evidence of disease.” I am on a spree.
Yesterday I went to a service at
The church was locked and I began to wonder if it had been cancelled or Fr. Bill had overslept. At the vicarage there was no sign of life.
He appeared at one minute to, holding a heavy bunch of keys, which always seem symbolic of something; St. Peter, one of my former cat sitters who used to visit twenty cats a day, old fashioned gaolers.
The Lady Chapel, although being a low church they don’t call it that, was flooded with golden light. I was asked to read the Gospel which surprised me, as at my other church this is the preserve of the priest. Fr Bill gave me a short homily about what he calls, “democracy.”
I haven’t read anything out loud since I was about thirteen. In my early days at school I was regularly called on to read and relished it, then my confidence evaporated and I started to develop phobias, about all sorts of things, and that was one of them.
There were only four of us there but still the words started swimming before my eyes. I managed it OK though and it was a good chance to try it again.
Spent the day struggling with a piece I am writing about the
In the evening I walked through
He was giving me a lift home one night, after I’d had the diagnosis of cancer. He said, “It’s only a Stage 1, you’ll be OK.” I told him it was stage 4. He said, “Oh,” sounding really shocked, taken aback. I remember his bulging, glaucous eyes in the car mirror, their look of fear, as if I was as good as dead. I haven’t seen or heard anything of him since that night.
The class is now in a different pub with different people, apart from one elderly lady. She was surprised at how much I’d changed and wondered if I’d had my hair done like this deliberately. A lot of older people seem to like this bubble cut, it must remind them of something from long ago.
It was a good feeling to get to the class again, like a renewed strength. But I realise that I am not ambitious anymore, for my art, writing or anything, all that has gone.
The model was an exquisite Chinese girl, with perfect proportions, not an ounce of fat under her skin which was smooth as marble.
An elderly man in the group, who must once have been handsome, chatted her up relentlessly during the break telling her all about his former career with an oil company. He’d ordered a beef burger and chips but hardly had time from looking at her to eat it. I removed nearly all the chips. Being invisible can have its advantages.
While I was waiting for someone, anyone to call back, made some
Monday, 2 May 2011
Friday 29th April. Royal Wedding Day.
I don’t know how the bride was doing but I was getting frazzled trying to get people to come round and watch the Royal Wedding with me.
My friend June in Guildford said she was scared of transport problems in
Another Japanese friend said she couldn’t come because she is addicted to a Korean soap opera.
“I can’t ask the children to travel all that way by car just to watch TV,” said another and my friend Pam had a cold.
I felt gloomy thinking of watching it on my own, then I began to picture them all arriving just as the bride got to the abbey, needing help to park their cars, demanding tea while she was taking her vows. I regretted ever suggesting it. It also dawned on me that perhaps I shouldn’t have invited anyone as my TV screen is only 13 inches wide.
My mother, aged 88, far away in her Staffordshire village said she preferred to watch it alone, then both her neighbours were having afternoon parties and her favourite old people’s home in the village, there are now five of them, had invited her as well.
I suggested she went to all of them, imagining her rolling around the village full of champagne.
“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t possibly do that,” she said to me, but then I heard her talking on her mobile to a friend, saying she was going to try to get round all of them.
The morning of the wedding Kayoko rang up and said, “What time are you expecting us?” I pointed out that she wasn’t coming. “Of course I am,” she said, “you are mixing me up with someone else.”
Five guests turned up, four women and one man, all good and early as I was finishing off a plate of cucumber sandwiches. As one helpful friend managed to open the salt cellar and pour salt over everything, I considered the party was underway. Everyone brought champagne and strawberries.
The BBC commentators were rather boring and lacked historical knowledge, they don’t provide context these days as they don’t know it. I recognised the 1930s scroll tiara, and Kayoko turned out to have detailed knowledge of the British monarchy.
“I have studied it,” she said, managing to be both slightly sinister and impressive as usual.
There was a bit of murmuring about the size of my TV screen, comments that it was left over from the Coronation. I wondered if the ladies didn’t spend most of their time glued to the plasma, but we could all clearly see the beauty of the bride’s dress, with its modest grace and clean lines; she was only slightly outclassed by the abbey itself which was the splendid star of the show.
The service was beautiful, and we all agreed, so very English. No multi-cultural, multi-faith junk, at last we were allowed something of our very own, quite a surprise. It was also so simple, one reading by the bride’s very brave brother, no soprano flown in, as Charles would have done, no homily from Stephen Fry although we did keep getting the grotesque spectacle of Elton John.
Among the 1, 900 guests there was certainly a panoply of powerful, complicated hats. Princess Beatrice looked like that little alien who appears on TV trying to introduce us to going digital. Tara Palmer Tomkinson wore something like a giant
Quite unexpectedly it was a perfect Christian marriage service and, delicious irony, no bling. The Middleton family were perfectly elegant and as calmly focussed and unflustered as if it had been just a small country wedding with a local photographer.
How could the mother with two dazzling daughters on show conceal her pride so well? Some women would have burst with it. I take my fascinator off to them.
My mind did slip back once or twice to what I was doing at the other royal wedding, thirty years ago. I had recently arrived in
I felt I hadn’t yet found the
With great determination and drive I set myself up in
During the service
The next day I looked at photos of Charles and Diana on the balcony. There is this child, weak, emotional and needy, and next to him Diana, lunging towards him, also desperate for an overwhelming, unconditional love. He can hardly bear to kiss her. His lips are sealed, his shoulders turned away from her, almost as if he has no idea who she is. He looks as connected as a gay man faced with a busty, blousy, amorous woman. If only Diana had ignored the fact that her face was on all the tea towels, and cancelled the whole show, as
Sandwiches, chocolate rolls, jam tarts, strawberries and cream, broken glasses, squashed sandwiches, crisps on the carpet, my little party went well and everyone agreed it had been a good one – June rang up and said she would have liked to join us but the size of my screen had put her off.
I have my next party, for my birthday, now looming up. I want this one to be small, so that I can really cook something, instead of providing a buffet c/o Waitrose. I have already invited too many people and I bet they will all turn up, oh dear.
Friday, 29 April 2011
At home my mother is very amused to see me looking like Leo Sayer, not that she would know who he was, she’s probably thinking Shirley Temple. She doesn’t of course say it looks nice, but seems fascinated by it and takes lots of photos to show her friends. I am going to tell people I’ve got cancer of the hair.
This time last year we also had radiant weather but I was creeping and crawling around the back ways of the village, almost out of my mind with shock and disbelief.
That was the start of it – a vague diagnosis of cancer, it was “undifferentiated,” which was bad news in its self, they didn’t know what it was but there were “lesions,” and one doctor said that I would have to have chemotherapy whatever it was.
I was also scratching around for work and not getting any. Since then I’ve had pieces in the Telegraph and the Times. My theme seems to be cancer, and the pity of it.
I have also been writing travel pieces for the glossy Private Banking Magazine, all because of the cancer. What a dull, shabby life I’d be having without it.
The anguish of last Spring is almost like a distant story now as I stand in the sunshine in Codsall village, at an open air Easter service, boiling with irritation.
Someone has decided to change the words of, “There Is A Green Hill Far Away.” The word “without,” as in city wall, which puzzled school children for generations, along with “Harold be thy name,” as been replaced by the sternly clear, “outside.”
The translation of the Gospel has been quite a strain for whoever set about hacking at it. They have come up with the idea that when he was mocked Jesus wore “a purple cape,” he was taken to a place called, “the hill of the skull,” and when he was crucified someone put up a “poster,” with the with words “King of the Jews.”
“The place of the skull,” used to be so evocative and sinister. Who are these people who keep changing our liturgy? Perhaps English is their second language. They seem to qualify for the job by having thick cloth ears.
I feel no respect for the vicar, who sounds like a dimmer version of William Hague, or his good lady curate, that they can stand happily listening to such butchery.
On Sunday morning at the 8am service, we are supposed to have the prayer book. It’s actually a pile of leaflets, but I found an old book at the back by the font, with the nice old type face.
“Mike,” a different vicar, very whiskery, introduces the service, just so that we all know where we are, and gives a little homily, based on the Easter gospel; stone rolled away, knots undone, empty tomb, angels present, women unable to find the body.
“Perhaps we should reflect on how we would react in similar circumstances,” he advises. I hope we’d all keep calm and carry on.
He then goes through the service changing every “man,” to “person,” and “indifferently,” becomes “impartially.”
I don’t think he really likes the old service at all, obviously doesn’t see any aesthetic point in it. I suspect the thinks that people go to it because it’s very quiet, a kind of clapping avoidance syndrome. He probably doesn’t realise that people like me turn up to hear phrases like, “indifferently administer justice to the punishment of wickedness and vice,” for the thrill of hearing words that sound like the ruffling of old pages. Well you won’t get any of that poetry stuff in the
I was pleased that we used Psalm 118, which has the verse: I shall not die, but live
The Lord has punished me sorely,
But he did not hand me over to death.
The whole psalm is about rejection and gives one a boost of hope.
Later I discovered that this psalm is being used at the royal wedding. It’s about death, abandonment and reprieve. I wonder if they have really read it? Perhaps that is how William the bereaved felt when Katy junked him then changed her mind.
I like my home village but my tastes are different, don’t fit in, and this makes me grumpy. Hearing a new tea shop has opened in Bilbrook the next village, walk over there eagerly. I like to know every cake and sweet shop within a hundred miles.
It’s a gloomy little place with old flap-jacks and submarine rolls with pink icing in the window. They are also offering a children’s party menu: Chicken nuggets, sausages and Dairylea slices. I wonder how that would go down in Chiswick? It certainly wouldn’t go down the throats of infant Chiswickians.
I do all my old walks in glorious sunshine, clinging the remaining pretty parts of the village, wallowing in patches of beauty. It’s a joy that you can still look up and see the ancient
Wednesday, 20 April 2011
A long wait amid the high backed lilac coloured chairs to see the doctor and hear my fate. Interested to note that the whole chemo clinic has now moved. There is a new place for it upstairs – hope I never see it.
Professor Gabra is very charming and almost casually drops the news that I am fine, better than that almost. What do you say? I thought I would skip out of there with joy if I got good news, but when it comes it’s difficult to fully realise.
I also know that I am trapped in some strange kind of relativity; the longer I go on without a recurrence the better are my chances, but the longer I go on the more a recurrence is likely, at least within the next five years.
He asks if there are any “issues” he needs to know. I mentioned the strange inner rumblings and whinings I get. At Christmas I thought these noises and aches and pains in my diaphragm meant the cancer was back. It’s not, so I wonder what they are?
He actually has a name for them, a great long one that I can’t remember. They are caused by the drugs given to stop rejection of the chemo drugs which cause scarring over the peritoneum, if that is the right word - the inner lining of your inside. He says they take years to heal.
I don’t mind, I quite like the sounds which are rather like the noise of overhead cables, wiring and metal springs, or mysterious activity in a haunted house.
I said thank you to Prof. Gabra and his team, for their skill at saving my life. He seemed genuinely pleased to hear that. I said thank you to Mr Gabra and his team, for their skill at saving my life. He seemed genuinely pleased to hear that. Obviously I hadn’t made my gratitude clear enough before, but what happened to me after the operation, the terrible nursing on the Victor Bonney ward and the lack of care when I got home had rather overshadowed the good work of the surgeons.
“We try to provide a first class service,” he said, “but the way things are going we won’t be able to do that much longer. The NHS is heading for a bottom of the line service. The government wants all the money to go to the “community,” and GPs, we are expected to get by on very little.” He sounded genuinely despairing.
18th April 2011.
Spent a week writing my Peru piece, crammed it all into 2,000 words and young Alec the editor of Private Banking Magazine seems pleased with it. I actually sent over 2,001 words and wonder which precious gem he will remove.
The paradise of
Visit my GP for a blood pressure test. It’s up and so is my weight. I have put on eight pounds since chemo, and before that I was already ten pounds overweight. Help!
It seems very hard to lose weight now. I never thought that would happen to me.
This time last year I was over a stone lighter, had wavy brown hair and thought I would probably never get the chance to travel again. Where is that person now? Gone missing.
I visited a councillor at Maggie’s to help me face up to possibly getting bad results tomorrow, and if not tomorrow some time soon.
I said I felt embarrassed at not having anyone to go with me for the test, or more importantly to meet me afterwards if the news is bad. I have not even tried to arrange anything for this eventuality. We explored that a bit and he told me I was projecting into the future, worrying about being isolated now and at a later date.
He recommended that I try to lessen my feelings of isolation and talked about joining “The University of the Third Age,” which he says is excellent in
“Make an effort,” he said.
Went to a Holy Week mass at 8pm and felt better. Asked someone in the congregation to help me tomorrow if necessary and she was happily quite willing.
Acton U3A sounded a bit sleepy on line, but Richmond U3A seemed to have a lot of exciting courses, including “Computer Art,” and history courses on Hitler and Stalin.
Rang the computer number. A quavering voice answered and sounded quite shocked that I wanted to come along.
“I am 90,” he said. “I only have two students and they are older than me.”
He said all their “machines” were very old, “almost finished.” “We use the Commodore Programme,” he said. Not sure what that is. He mentioned Alan Sugar and I remembered my hated old Amstrad. I wondered if they used Windows at all?
“We are moving in that direction,” said the quavering voice. I could have been talking to Babbage.
Phoned the lady about Hitler. If she was anything like the last person she probably went out with him or his brother.
I asked her about the age of people in the U3A. “Haven’t you looked it up?” she snapped. I had but it didn’t say anywhere on line just how old you have to be.
“Retired,” she said. I think she meant the old days, when people retired at 65.
She has dropped Hitler and Stalin.
“I am doing interesting people next term,” she said, “so I can get out of bed in the morning and feel cheerful.”
I will ring a few other numbers, make an effort. But I can’t see it somehow.
Paid a visit to my friend Elaine, who looks after Maisie when I am away. She has a menagerie in her flat, rabbits, birds, rodents, guinea-pigs. I saw a post-card in
She spent all winter looking after a stray cat, Sox, trying to give him shelter and food in the garden, encouraging him to come in but he was terrible nervous. After months he moved in with her, but then he started misbehaving towards the other animals. She sent me anxious texts: He has noticed the hamster/ He is too interested in the budgies.
Then worse: He’s got to go/ I will have to find him a new home.
I urged her to give him another chance. He was on the brink of being out in the snow again.
When I went round last night the first thing I saw was this great looking tabby cat sitting bolt upright looking very pleased as he was groomed all down one side by a small black and white rabbit. Apparently the rabbit is mad about him. Elaine has photos of them in bed together. So Sox won’t be going anywhere soon, I am glad to say.
Monday, 11 April 2011
Sat 2nd April, 2010.
15 hours, 30 mins. British Airways then
On the long trip to Lima, sat next to a tiny woman called Manuela Florez. She spoke only Quechua the old Inca language, Spanish and a bit of Italian. I only had a smattering of Italian but managed to understand that she had lived in
I got the feeling she was rather lonely, a very motherly type who would love to look after a man.
She told me that a perfect diet consists of “cheecha” or corn beer, chicharrones or pork scratchings, cuy or guinea pig and coca tea. Sounds OK to me, except I won’t eat cavie. I must let my friend Conner who runs the anti-cancer cookery school in
Manuela was terrible patient as I huffed and puffed, writhed about, couldn’t sleep then fell asleep unexpectedly. Being so uncomfortable, with aching joints reminded me of chemotherapy all over again and I also started getting hot flushes.
We put up the arms on our seats to get about two inches more space, and walked about together down the dark plane towards the increasingly wet loos. Despite my restlessness she must have liked me a bit as she invited me to stay at her house in Arequpa near
I met a lot of young girls on the journey, quite a range of them. One had a distinct under-bite and rather a silly, eager face. She seemed really good hearted but didn’t talk to her parents and looked as if she was out on her own. She wore a long dress, flip-flops, a stud in her nose and tattoos. She was reading The Celestine Prophecy and urged me to do so. She also had another fat book about someone who had been an armed robber in Latin America and fetched up in
All the girls said they had only decided to travel to Latin American a few days ago and only packed the night before. Even in my wildest youth I was never that spontaneous or confident.
There were a few real toff girls who seem to be heading for Cusco the way they once flocked to
Great sleep. It’s almost worth travelling 8,000 miles in an airless container just for that.
I breakfasted on roast pork ribs, roast sweet potatoes, papaya, real corn flakes and quinoa, followed by rolls and coca leaf marmalade, which was a bit too sweet for me.
S America is a good place for meat eaters, not in the sense of big
Not eating cuy will be my one successful Lenten vow this year I think! I told the Maitre’d, "In
Hoped to have a swim. My hotel, Casa Andina Miraflores, boasted an “impressive third floor swimming pool with a waterfall,” and panoramic views. This turned out to be a patch of water the size of a garden pond surrounded by high frosted glass. Who really wants to look at the streets of
“It has beautiful parks,” my guide told me as we drove in from the airport. True, but no one can walk in them without armed escort, or so it feels. My instincts are on over-drive perhaps.
Look at myself in the large hotel bathroom mirror. What do I look like? Nothing much. My new curly hair is so quaint! It makes me look like one of those girls who joined the Christian Union and the hockey club at university. I feel it gives strangers the wrong impression, that I am about to play the role of a gentile lady traveller.
Sitting in the lobby an English couple came over and chatting to me, at first I had no idea who they were because I had sat next to them hours ago, flying from
13:50 Lan flight
A friendly, chatty young woman checked my bag in, a change after the stony faces at
As we drove into town there was a football match on the radio, an Inca team, I was told, against some Indians from the
My itinerary for the next week is very complicated, it worries me, all those flight, bus and train connections. One new sheet of instructions given to me in
Young Alec, the editor of Private Banking, which sent me here, has been out of touch for over two weeks. I asked him about expenses and he fell silent. That is usual for editors, but I thought he might have contacted me before I took off. I decided not to call him so that he has no idea whether I have gone away or not. I could still be in
As everything is planned and paid for I might as well plough on.
Seeing my room in my hotel, Inkaterra La Casona, on plaza Nazarenas in
The hotel was built on the sight of an Inca palace but was they claimed by a Conquistador. It remains in the old Spanish style, dark and cool around a small court yard. My room was simple but elegant, leading into a marble bathroom.
I celebrated with a Pisco sour,
Hiram Bingham train (Orient Express) up to
The usual Orient Express finery; crisp cream napery, flowers on the tables, brass and copper fittings, and Tiffany lamps. That’s appropriate as Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu P exactly 100 years ago, was married to the Tiffany heiress before he dumped her for a younger model.
The train is full of Americans. I am placed at a table opposite two large families of them. One boy is crouching, with his trainers on the finely upholstered seats. Feel annoyed. In my role as quaint, eccentric travelling spinster, ask him gently not to put his feet on the seats. His mother looks astonished. Not long after she suddenly flings herself under the table, head down.
Her husband explains in a burbling, whiney voice, "We've had terrible bouts of altitude sickness." A bit odd as we are now in the Sacred Valley, down at 8,000 ft. Decide she was a silly woman and I feel glad to see her bourn off to spend the whole journey lying down and closeted away. He starts complaining that the trip from
Have a look at the bar, next to an end carriage which is open and used as a viewing platform. A group of Peruvians serenade loudly as we take pictures. As I go and look at the tracks realise that I have seen them before in a dream, years ago. This makes me feel very unsettled. Chat to a couple of American lady travellers from
There is a glamorous woman now seated opposite with her old mother. They are originally from
She tells me her husband runs a successful business in
"It is so wonderful to travel," she goes on, place dropping all the time. Later I think she was saying, "What is really the purpose of it all?" and her compulsive travel was a diversion from some kind of sorrow.
5/4/11 Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel.
I didn’t like this hotel much when I first arrived, after the grand comfort of La Casona it seemed a bit more Spartan. No chocs on the pillow or nice slippers. Then I realised it is a completely different kind of hotel. It consists of pueblos on an estate set in 2,000 acres of cloud forest. There is an “eco center,” offering walks into the jungle to look at orchids,
I enjoyed meeting three spectacle bears; Yogi, Pepe,
He'd never had banana and I don't think the ranger with me was expecting me to do it, I had saved it from breakfast. She said they would go back later and find out if the bear had eaten it or not, it was of interest. Up there they live on avocado, mango and bromeliads. They make a high sweet cry too, no growling.
Today I saw a bear’s genitals for the first time. Pepe, aged 20, sniffed the air, smelled females in the surrounding jungle and showed me what he’d got. The best offer I’ve had for some time.
They looked like a bright red pencil box, very rectangular and sharp at the corners, then the end turned into a funnel shape. The whole thing flopped back into his dense fur and hung there listlessly, a dark sack with a tiny red tip.
His keepers say he is too old to have a partner which seems a bit unfair. The truth is they haven’t rescued any females. The one they had made off and now lives happily in the forest nearby, appearing occasionally.
Like many middle aged mammals Pepe suffers from overweight. He was on eight avocados a day, but is now down to three, perhaps this unusual version of joining AA was the reason he seemed so depressed and listless.
In another cage I met
I think I have just had a perfect day: 8.30am visited the bear sanctuary, then breakfast overlooking the roaring
12 noon a two hour massage using hot stones and lemon scented oil, followed by 20 minutes inside a "sweat lodge," then a cold plunge in a pond, followed by two warm baths in hot pools.
I felt very contented, resting my head on the side of one pool watching humming birds drinking from sugar feeders put up for them in the gardens.
Lunch on Andean salad and cheese. Potter into Agua Callientes, the local town over the railway tracks, where the blue Peruvian trains come in, look around the market, then return to sit on my patio. Sip coca tea looking up at
Later get a text from young Alec, at last! It says simply, "Good work, Jane." I could be in Morrison’s doing my weekly shop for all he knows, He takes it on trust that I will do the job, perhaps it’s down to the famous Daily Mail training which was something like an army training.
Hiram Bingham train back to Cusco at 5pm and tomorrow the long slog back to the
Coming back from the rail station by mini-bus back up to
Also realise one can live happily without TV, radio or internet.
The food on the return flight is much worse than coming out for some reason and the stewardesses are not nice. They remind me of the nurses I met when I was in hospital at this time last year; coldly hostile, unsmiling, if you are rash enough to ask them for anything you get a kind of death stare.
In the night I went to look for a glass of water and ventured behind the curtain into the galley. One of them was sitting there her legs stretched out, feet up on the work surface. She was very grumpy and when I said “excuse me,” and tried to get past her legs she said, “Oh don’t bother,” in a mock English accent. The only English I heard spoken on board. At the far distant end of the economy section, near the loo, two others were sitting inside and wouldn’t let me past so I had to push past the front row of the economy section over people’s legs and bags. Hospital patients, passengers; a damn nuisance.
There is also the concomitant neglect; our empty food boxes not collected for over an hour so no one can get out. In the end I gathered them up for myself and the silent unfriendly man sitting next to me and took them to the gallery myself. I could have done the whole plane before we saw the stewardesses again.
The curtain dividing us from business class remains firmly shut, but the curtain dividing us from the galley is always open, so we are flooded with light all night and out little TV screen fades into nothing.
When I arrived in
I said, “why not tell them off about it in
There is certainly a huge difference between economy and business class, perhaps it was always so, but I feel that differences between the rich and the not so well-off are getting more obvious and annoying.
The new terminal in
There is nothing to look at, the shops are crummy and an air of anger and confusion as very few people can follow the strange signs. Again there is no English, the idea that it’s become a lingua Franca doesn’t apply here.
As I sat in Starbucks, wondering if I could survive on the wooden chair for the next three hours I saw a Latin American woman with a strange bottom like two very large balloons. She’d obviously had implants. It was a parody of the human form. I wonder if that will catch on, a baboon bottom to go with a trout pout? It was a good job old Pepe couldn’t see her. Elderly couples seated nearby averted their eyes.
For a time I sat with an elderly man who gave me his card. It said: “E Anton Loubser, Honorary Consul General of the
He was grimly facing a ten hour wait with no where comfortable to sit. He talked a bit about his life in the South African diplomatic service. He gave me a picture of how a civil servant behaves under an increasingly despotic regime.
“For a civil servant loyalty is the watchword,” he said.
He had met Nelson Mandela several times since his release, and was full of sentimental admiration for him. “He loves children,” he told me.
He had wanted a kind of federal system in the country so that all ethnic groups could “develop” separately. Now he was sad to find himself part of a state mainly ruled by one tribe, the Hausa, and had feelings of terrible loss.
“We gave them a marvellous country with a fine economy,” he said. “Despite sanctions we once had a great infrastructure and the finest medical service in the world.”
He also talked about his time in
He also remembered Emperor Bokasa of the
“It used to amuse me to see him coming in with his fly whisk,” he said. “He liked us very much, was always very friendly to me, but perhaps he did lack judgement.”
Diplomatic speak for the man was a homicidal maniac and possibly a cannibal.
Finally got to go to my boarding gate feeling exhausted as if I’d read a whole Graham Green novel in one go.
On board it felt suddenly safe, like being in
They were of course terribly charming and polite. They chatted about where they’d been but didn’t ask me where I’d come from. As I left the plane and headed for the customs gate I was ahead of the rest with one of the boys aged about fifteen beside me. We chatted as we slowly filed along. He said he was very tired after the trip from
I expect he’d sampled the famous night life. As we parted at the baggage carousel he insisted on shaking my hand.
“Well, it has been really lovely to meet you,” he said. “Good luck getting home!” I won’t see manners as polished as that again in awhile.
When I got home I noticed a walking stick in my hallway that I’d been given when I walked the Inka trail ten years ago.
I’d set off well across the thousands of miles of granite pavements, but then one of my knees had “gone,” and I’d had to stagger along with a knee brace, pain-killers and that stick.
It’s very stout, topped with a grotesquely carved Indian face, with a gaping mouth full of large, horrible looking donkey’s teeth. It’s topped by a sharp pointed animal horn.
I remember bringing it back with me on the aeroplane. What would be the chance of that now?
Just before we got to the Sun Gate, the triumphant end of the trail, we stopped for a drink at a hostel, the last one on the trail. Our leader had gone ahead and must have been chatting to people, because when I arrived, lagging behind, I was suddenly pushed violently and jostled as I tried to get to the bar.
I went outside and sat by myself in the sun but a daft looking young man with a new age hair cut came towards me and said, “You are from the Daily Mail. The people in there hate you and they are going to come out here and beat you up.”
I stood up, feeling very still and calm, stick in my hands, pointed horn at the ready and said, “Ok, come on then.” I was going to use the horn to crack his head open like an egg, I really was.
“I think you are a nincompoop,” I said, and he backed off grinning rather sheepishly.
I am still surprised at what altitude can do to you, in my case bring on a bout of psychosis, and just how much the Daily Mail is hated, even in the remotest corners of the globe.